As I listened to my boyfriend make his tenth phone call of the hour, I absentmindedly stirred vegetables and reflected on the events of the past month. Fuck this season, I overheard from the kitchen. Together, we had been stunned by a hero’s suicide and his partner’s avalanche burial, witnessed my mentor’s paralyzing accident, and now, this evening, we were learning of his close friend’s sudden death in Yosemite.
by Lauren DeLaunay (banner photo of the author on Skull Queen, Washington Column, Yosemite. Photo: Pato Berra)
Just a few weeks earlier, I had been the one making the impossibly difficult calls from The Valley. I choked back tears and left messages in between whirs of the helicopter while I sat nearby, waiting for information on Quinn’s condition. Three days earlier, I had been up there with her, laughing and joking and pulling all the same speed-climbing shenanigans. But before I knew it, there I was, mouth agape as my hero was plucked off the wall, telling our friends and colleagues back in Estes Park that I did not know for sure if she was going to be okay.
I met Quinn a few years ago and immediately was in awe of her wide-reaching skillset. Park ranger, alpine first ascensionist, and speed-climbing aficionado. I tried to emulate her cool confidence and playful demeanor. So when she called last spring and asked me to meet her in the desert for a week of hard crack climbing and big wall lessons, I felt like I had been called up to the big leagues; nonetheless, I stopped what I was doing and drove to Arizona. Flash forward six months, and we’re two-thirds of the way up El Capitan, with Josie on lead, using Chapstick to moisten our dried-up lips. We’d been out of water for three hours and were giggling at our situation. There’s no way we could have known then what we’d know by the end of the week: that Quinn would never use her legs again. Devastating doesn’t even begin to describe it.
A month goes by, and Yosemite gets hit again. Niels had fallen and was gone, just like that. I hadn’t known him, but the calls my boyfriend made that evening were hauntingly similar to ones I had recently made. How do you break that kind of news? It had been a brutal month for our community, and we had all started to feel the jitters every time the phone rang unexpectedly. I hate rock climbing, I heard cried through the phone. I made a plate for myself, despite my lack of appetite, and coaxed my boyfriend to eat in between messages.
Call me back right away. It’s important.
I started rock climbing in 2011 after seeing Alex Honnold on the cover of National Geographic. I had grown up a long way from the mountains and had never even been camping, but I knew in an instant that I wanted to stand there, on the edge of space, thousands of feet above the ground. Before I knew how to belay, I had a goal: I would climb The Nose within five years. My sights were set on the greatest route in the world, but I started small, at my college’s indoor wall. Before long, I was making the five-hour journey every weekend to the New River Gorge, and I was as hooked on the physical challenge as much as I was drawn in by the people. I can vividly recall sitting around a campfire with new friends, telling competing tales of epics large and small. I couldn’t believe that this community of people—people just like me—existed, and within two years, I had moved into my car, bouncing from one seasonal job to another. Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Utah, I didn’t stop running until I landed in the home of that original dream, the ultimate climber’s playground: Yosemite Valley.
Years later, I realize that I’ve met nearly all my closest friends through climbing, and it’s no wonder that a mutual obsession with the Big Stone brought my boyfriend and I together as well. As I bailed off El Capitan and wandered over to the meadow, he was explaining the logistics of big wall climbing to visiting tourists. This place had been as formidable to us as individuals as it was to our budding relationship. We spent the rest of the season riding our bikes around The Valley and sauntering up our favorite routes; I knew he was a keeper when he hiked pizza up to the bottom of the East Ledges descent after my first one-day push on The Captain. By the end of the season, we would see each other at some of life’s lowest points.
Sometimes it seems as if everyone I know has made a life out of this shared addiction to adventure, jumping from one sunny spot to another; as one expedition ends, the planning for another begins. It’s nearly compulsory, our constant plotting and scheming and dreaming of bigger missions to come. We’re wondering how we can move faster next time before we even untie. I had never before questioned my life’s direction, but in light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “whys” of climbing, relating to anyone who has experienced the highs of alpinism, the exhausting satisfaction of big wall climbing, and even the smaller daily joys of a simple life spent in the outdoors. I knew that climbers could get hurt and had known friends of friends who had been stolen by the mountains, but this season, it really hit close to home.
Of course, we all go to the mountains for the pleasure and fulfillment that we find nowhere else. We have tasted heaven on summits. We know no closeness akin to sharing a sunrise with a loved one, no stillness more illuminating of our true selves than the mirror of an alpine lake. We have found nirvana in the redwoods and know that Shangri-la is a hidden waterfall or a bright-blue glacier.
And yet, as with everything, the pendulum swings both ways. By opening ourselves up to the beauty and joy of a life in the mountains, we must also accept the staggering blows. The mountains that give us so much do not hesitate to take everything away in a heartbeat, leaving us shocked, boggled, and gasping for air. We have widened our spectrum of emotions and, in doing so, accidentally allowed ourselves to feel the lowest of lows. Climbing El Cap in a day with Quinn was such a crowning high, I was left wondering if I had pulled my pendulum too far, leaving it no choice but to come barreling down just as forcefully in the other direction.
In the days, weeks, maybe months, following these accidents, I swore never to return. As my sorrow peaked in its swing, acutely aware of my mortality, I refused to ever again risk so much. I looked out my window with resentment and drove past El Cap without glancing up. There were days when I was ambivalent and days when I was downright angry. I hung up my ropes, my skis, my boots, vowing never to go back to the places that took everything. Not only did I hate climbing but I hated being a climber.
I hated that the moment the heartache began to dissipate, my dreams started to creep back in. Like it or not, I will always long to feel the last light of the day set on my cheeks, the weightless perfection of freshly fallen snow and sun-kissed rock. I will lie awake at night, reliving the memories of getting to climb El Cap with my longtime hero and friend, only days before her life-changing accident. I will remember taking the lead for the middle block of our push, moving slowly, making finicky aid placements one after another. Just as I had started to get into my rhythm, crawling farther and farther away from my partners, I heard snort-filled laughter erupt from below. I looked down to see Quinn in a perfect handstand on a ledge that would send most people into a panic just to sit on. Despite occasionally wishing I could be happy with a life farther from the edges, I fall asleep every night remembering what it is like to look down at The Valley floor from three thousand feet, great friends by my side, just as I had once hoped I would.
Over time, I learned that we cannot have that highest of highs without the unimaginable lows, that yin begets yang, and that, whether I realized it at the time or not, I asked for this. I created this life, with all its beauty and all its sorrow. There’s nothing heroic about climbing. But I do think there’s something special about refusing to give up on the dreams that keep you up at night. I choose to believe that there is something important about putting yourself out there to live the life you were born to lead.
As my boyfriend and I head out for Thanksgiving with our families, and the mountains fade in our rearview mirror, a hawk swoops overhead, circles our car, and continues its silent parade. We are hushed in admiration, and then he whispers to me—or, more likely, to himself—Isn’t it cool that Niels is a bird now?
And that is how I know. I know that I will live out my life, however long or short, in the mountains, dancing with the birds, because it is the only way I know how. I know that I will endure as many pendulum swings as my life will allow, appreciating the highs and the lows and the slow-moving spots in the middle. And I know that just as the hawk doesn’t pause to question the necessity of its flight, from this point forward, neither will I.
Since graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lauren has been on the accidentally never-ending road trip. She’s equally at home in the high peaks of the Rockies as she is in Utah’s red desert but knows that nothing is better than a granite hand crack and therefore currently calls Yosemite home. When not putting her International Relations degree to use in The New York Times Crossword puzzle, she can be found climbing, skiing, trail running, or binge listening to NPR in her 1997 GMC Safari named Bozarth.